The dehumanized employee

In the 1936 film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin is fed by an assembly line and almost eaten by one. The idea that machines consumed people was a common complaint in the age of heavy industry. Human beings, went the popular critique, had become the slaves of machines, and in the case of Chaplin’s character, twitching automatons.

Chaplin’s movie reflected the factory world created by Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915), the most influential management guru of the machine age. Taylor transformed factories from fairly plodding places into models of economic rationality where capital intensive machinery ran full and fast in order to maximize return on investment.

Since the machines had to be driven hard, so did the people who ran them. Taylor used the stopwatch and piece-rate pay to squeeze the last ounce of effort out of workers. Despite his tyrannical methods, Taylor managed to sell himself, at least for a time, as a prophet of democracy, out to enrich the working class rather than enslave them. Chaplin disagreed.

History seems to be repeating itself in the information age. Today’s management gurus have long promised that information technology would deliver a new birth of freedom for corporate employees. Contemporary prophets of management often predict that information technology will flatten hierarchies, empower employees and shrink giant companies into human communities.

In his recent book, The Future of Work, MIT’s Thomas Malone argues that IT is pushing out authority to the fringes of the organization and empowering workers to have more autonomy and decision-making power. To a significant degree those prophecies are being fulfilled, especially for well-educated employees with knowledge and skills in high demand.

Reducing employees to bits and bytes

It is increasingly clear, however, that for many other employees, the management gurus prophesying that IT will democratize today’s workplaces are just as wrong as Taylor was. IT can be used not only to liberate human beings but to control them. In industries employing unskilled workers, such as retailing, IT has created top-down control to a degree that Taylor could only have dreamed of. Instead of working for small organizations, many retail employees work for giant firms that dwarf even the behemoths of the industrial era.

Management by remote

Just as the machine age made Chaplin’s character a faceless automaton, the information age can make employees invisible to managers who may be tempted to think of them as mere bits of data. Thanks to IT and the instantaneous global reach of today’s large companies, many of the management decisions affecting employees are made from a great geographical and organizational distance, which offers managers the temptation to ignore the human beings affected by their decisions.

As long ago as 1995, Thomas Davenport, my colleague at Babson College, warned that management gurus were in danger of treating employees “as if they were just so many bits and bytes.”

Where workers in Taylor’s time at least knew the managers who profoundly affected their lives, employees in large organizations today often have no human connection to managers who exert enormous control over them. A century ago it was unusual for corporate headquarters to make a decision that affected employees’ daily lives. It took a big decision with big consequences — the decision, say, to open or close a factory. Workers’ routine operations within the factory were still controlled by immediate, highly visible supervisors.

Using IT to squeeze work hours

But in our time, employees are often affected not just by epochal decisions in the life of a company but by routine daily decisions made at headquarters located in another state or even another country. At Wal-Mart and other large retailers, for example, the pressure under which employees work depends not just on their immediate supervisors but on centralized decisions emanating from computerized headquarters that tell local managers how many (or rather, how few) person hours they are expected to use that week.

Even at the level of what in Taylor’s time would have been called the “shop floor,” IT can separate frontline supervisors from employees and make it easier to manage harshly. The burgeoning call centre industry — that does much of today’s marketing, sales and customer service — relies on IT systems that often end up subjecting employees to high levels of stress.

As employees speak with customers they are supervised remotely via technology that monitors their pace, productivity and faithfulness to the software-driven script that plays across the computer screen in front of them. The script provides precise instructions for how call centre agents should handle each call from beginning to end.

At many organizations, as Simon Head notes in his book, The New Ruthless Economy, a call centre employee’s only human contact with a manager may occur during a work break when the underling is rebuked for some shortcoming identified in real-time on the manager’s computer screen.

There are, of course, companies such as Inc., American Express Co., eBay Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. that give their frontline employees a great deal of autonomy and respect their judgment and ability to provide the kind of service that keeps customers loyal.

Even so, technological developments now on the horizon seem likely to increase, not decrease, restrictive top-down management. New sensor technology such as radio frequency identification (RFID) devices will inexpensively monitor truck drivers, salespeople, field service technicians and other offsite personnel who have traditionally worked out of their bosses’ sight. As such employees are monitored with increasing intensity by new technology, the amount of “management by stress” in American workplaces seems likely to rise.

It is customary to blame the declining prospects of American workers on the fierce competition of the global economy. Companies, it is said, have to use part-time and temporary employees, slash benefits, hold down wages, and demand more effort in order to keep jobs in America while competing with employers of cheap labour overseas.

Whatever legitimacy there is to that argument, it is not the whole story behind the grim new reality of a shrinking middle class and the country increasingly divided into a “two-tier America.” Modern management’s masterful use of high technology should not be let off the hook for the increasing numbers of citizens who are working harder and earning less.

If, as some assert, there is a global “race to the bottom,” IT is helping to facilitate that race by enabling retail chains to schedule employees from a distance, without regard for what’s going on in those employees’ lives, by allowing call centres to squeeze productivity out of customer service representatives, and soon, by permitting managers to monitor offsite employees with RFID tags.

One solution: Employee hotlines

What can IT managers do to help alleviate such restrictive environments? One possibility is to watch for ways to make employees more visible to management. To the degree that these conditions result from invisibility and ignorance rather than cruelty and callousness, making IT an instrument of genuine bottom-up communication would be a help.

Perhaps something can be learned from the anonymous employee hotlines that companies such as Shell Oil Co., MCI Inc. and PricewaterhouseCoopers have adopted and many others are putting in place to catch potential ethical and legal violations in our post-Enron era. IT sounding boards that let employees “sound off” anonymously and at will to an ombudsman might give management a different and more accurate understanding of organizational culture and morale than periodic surveys administered by hired consultants.

An employee revolution?

But of course no form of bottom-up communication can reduce workplace harshness in companies more interested in talking the talk than in walking the walk toward a more just and generous society. It may be that for some years yet, information technology and the global economy it supports will make corporate America a little bit more like the world’s least envied societies, where the many are dominated by the few.

Yet managers who are eager to use IT not just to run their businesses more efficiently but to create a better society may be wiser in the long run. America is, after all, a democratic country, and citizens will not remain passive forever if increasing numbers of them are reduced to second-tier status.

When Chaplin filmed his critique of the machine age in 1936, Congress had just passed the National Labor Relations Act, which assisted in the formation of the great industrial unions that were so vital a part of mid-20th-century American prosperity. The political pendulum has swung a long way in the other direction since then, but nothing is forever.

The pendulum may change directions once more unless managers and companies can use IT not to continue but to reverse our present course toward a corporate society of rich and poor, powerful and powerless, who are ever less visible to each other.

James Hoopes is Murata Professor of Business Ethics at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. His most recent book is False Prophets: The Gurus Who Created Modern Management and Why Their Ideas Are Bad for Business Today.

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